Offa’s Dyke Path, day 1: Sedbury Cliffs to Chepstow

May 19, 2019 0 Comments

A couple of ancient carriages, probably scheduled to be replaced by Transport for Wales in the year 2030, rattle their way into Chepstow Station.  One of the few adverts inside is for a useful sounding firm called Simple Cremations.  As we get out it’s raining hard, and C and I dive into the station café for a tea.  It’s called the First Class Café, which probably sets up false expectations – although there’s nothing wrong with the tea.  A poster on the wall tells us that ‘the world always looks brighter with a smile’.  We may not be smiling, but we both feel a boyish sense of excitement at the prospect of an adventure ahead.  Or, as the narrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my reading for the week ahead, says, ‘the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river’.

We’re setting out to walk the southern half of the Offa’s Dyke Path as far as Knighton, and what better place to start than the southern terminus of the Path, and of the Wales Coast Path, Chepstow, which we last visited in June 2014.

The rain’s eased and we pull our cases through the streets towards the Wye.  We drop them at the Woodfield Arms, our home for the night.  We’ll not need to transport them again till we reach Knighton, because this trip, along Offa’s Dyke, is walking for softies: we’ve used a company called Celtic Trails to book all our accommodation and transport our suitcases from stop to stop.

As often on the Wales Coast Path we’re using the first afternoon as a gentle introduction to the labours of the week ahead.  We cross John Rennie’s handsome 1816 stone and iron bridge over the Wye into Gloucestershire, climb up the lane opposite, and then walk along a ginnel between high walls that follows the cliffs above the river towards Sedbury Cliffs, where Offa’s Dyke meets the Severn estuary.  At its start a cloth Peter Rabbit sits on a bracket set into the wall.  But this promising note of oddity isn’t maintained: we’re soon deep in bungalowed suburbia.  The path tries to escape from the road, but an official council notices forbids us from following it.  ‘There is no alternative route’, adds the joyless bureaucrat.  More bungalows follow.  Eventually some older housing appears, and some resonant street names, Offa’s Close (or rather ‘Offas Close’: apostrophes are a rare species here) and Mercian Avenue.  Historically Offa is a powerful but shadowy figure, the Ozymandias of Anglo-Saxon England, and we need to treasure mentions of him, like Shelley’s cracked stone limbs, wherever we see his name.  The concrete houses of Mercian Way survive from Pennsylvania Garden City, built to house shipyard workers brought here from Tyneside and the Clyde when the government nationalised the Chepstow docks in response to German U-boat attacks during the First World War.

We climb a buttercup field to Buttington Tump, the remains of a fortification much older than Offa’s time, and descend towards the estuary on a meadowy path.  Early May is the white season: we’re surrounded by blackthorn flowers and tall cow parsley.  At the bottom we go wrong, and find ourselves on the Severn shore, at the foot of, instead of the top of, Sedbury Cliffs.  It’s a magical, deserted place.  To our right is the original Severn Bridge, still graceful despite its bypassing by the Second Severn Crossing (I’ll not call it by its new, imposed name).  To the left, Hinkley Point nuclear power station shines malevolently from across the water, in a patch of rare sunlight.

After stumbling along for some time we realise our mistake, walk back, and climb on to the cliff top.  This is where we find the modest bilingual plaque that marks the beginning of the Offa’s Dyke Path.  Below us the Dyke and its western ditch are very obvious, leading north-west.  They’re studded with grand oaks, beeches and hawthorns, and set in a green theatre of fields.  It’s satisfying to have such an early introduction to the Dyke – and puzzling that Offa, or whoever built it, ceded possession of the Wye and its banks to the Welsh of Gwent.  As we leave a field an unhelpful sign, ‘Caution, bull in field’, is written by hand in what seems to be the bull’s blood.  Then we retrace our steps to Chepstow and this time cross the mud-banked Wye on the footpath that runs alongside the A48 road to Gloucester.  It’s a noisy, unpleasant crossing.  Flowers mark the spot where someone presumably fell from the bridge into the waters.

Now it’s raining again, and we shelter in a coffee shop and treat ourselves to coffee and cakes.  It’s a studious place, reminiscent of a university library, full of single people muffled in earphones and absorbed in laptops.  Later we’re joined by our first guestwalker, Ch, and over a pasta-loading meal at a restaurant called Panevino, talk of the day ahead: a walk upriver.

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